The Internet of Demanding Things

This week's topic for the School For Poetic Computation's Critical Theory Class is the "Internet of Things" known affectionately as Iot.  I decided to focus on the idea that, in may unpredictable ways, the Internet of Things will make our lives more complicated by creating dependencies on certain telecommunication interactions with the devices in our homes. 

The device I've been working on requires the owner to tweet at it within a specified period of time or its health will slowly decline.  If its health reaches zero, a relay will deliver a lethal voltage to the control electronics.  When the lethal voltage is applied a red liquid will also be released indicating that the device is indeed dead.  

The owner will know how much life the device has remaining by locally watching the LED bar-graph mounted on its back, or by following the device on twitter to receive its hourly health tweets.

Each time the owner tweets the word FEED @resist_death, the device regains five bars of energy.  If the owner decides to punish the device, the word IGNORE can tweeted @resist_death and five bars of energy will be deducted.  The life of the device is calculated and updated every hour.

Progress: All basic communication structures and bar-graph working.  

To do: Work out "death sequence".  Design and make "skin." Final Assembly.

 Concept Drawing

Concept Drawing

 Electronics Prototyped

Electronics Prototyped

  @resist_death twitter feed

@resist_death twitter feed

Curious and Cautious Toward the Sharing Economy

Thoughts post reading:

I can agree with some of the major points in the “The Cult of Sharing” article but I would also maintain that there are aspects of these "sharing" businesses that are truly as rewarding as the advertising campaigns make them out to be. I'd like to fuse a few points from the article that stand out with my own understanding and personal experiences of some of the businesses (Kickstarter, AirBNB, Lyft, Task Rabbit, Whole Foods,...) in question.  I will most frequently reference AirBNB since that’s the company with which I have the most experience.

Taxes:  The ways some of these companies have chosen to pay as few taxes as possible is clearly a problem - and even underhanded - though not too surprising based in silicon valley's track record with taxes.  This makes them similar to any conservative profit-seeking entity looking for ways to maximise income even at the cost of keeping essential infrastructure alive.  Uber and Lyft drive on roads; Is it not obvious that tax dollars are necessary to keep the roads in good shape?  This should be apparent in San Francisco of all places where, partially because of Proposition 13 (a long time drain on tax revenue) roads are more worn and pothole-laden than in some developing countries I’ve visited.  I understand that there are many arguments (and excuses) about how tax dollars are used but until private money proves it can keep all our infrastructural needs in good working order (which has not been in the case in California, a place with plenty of private dollars), sales taxes are essential and should not be avoided by these institutions.

Do these businesses actually create community?:  No and Yes.  The “neighbors helping neighbors” facade just sounds silly to me.  If you want to help your neighbor, you don’t need an app.  These are tools that allow people to generate income in new ways not find new ways to "help out a neighbor." The happy side-effect: they do offer many opportunities for connecting with people, often in meaningful ways.  I’ve had inspiring interactions with both Kickstarter and AirBNB members (both as a guest and host). My experiences have been so positive that I almost always look at AirBNB options before I consider any hotel option.  I don’t think I’ve had a hotel experience where I felt like I made some kind of personal connection with the host(s) but I’ve had AirBNB experiences where: I’ve hung out with genuinely good people, I’ve been picked up from a train station at no cost, I’ve received small gifts and valuable advice, and more.  Most recently, some guests staying at our place in San Francisco ended up having wine with our downstairs neighbors and they all had a blast.  These are the stories that AirBNB advertises and they match my experience.  I don’t see fault the company for highlighting these stories as some kind of “cultish” ploy.  I’m definitely aware of emotional manipulation as an advertising method but I feel like there’s a less superficial manipulation of this method on AirBNB’s part.  They may be accused of other underhanded operations but they get a pass from me on this. Maybe I’m brainwashed by their cult-like methods.

Regulation:  It is amazing how these companies seem to be frequented by liberals but support the ideals of the conservatives.  It’s a bit scary, for example, how long some of these companies can work outside any regulatory system.  A “make the rules as you go” feeling lends a wild west atmosphere to what is now a major component to our economy.  As a San Francisco host on AirBNB I was terrified that someone would try to squat / overstay or sue for a hypothetical injury.  I did significant research but found few clear answers to my concerns.  Even though there’s a well documented AirBNB incident in which a host encountered a serious issue with California law, when a man claimed residency after 30 days, AirBNB still seems to have no definitive advice on how to deal with this situation.  In addition, they offer damage insurance but nothing to cover a potentially much more expensive liability issue. I couldn’t really find any good advice online about how to protect yourself.  Even State Farm had to research the issue and get back to me.  A hotel, on the other hand, is surely paying through the eyeballs to make sure it’s protected by a number of insurance mechanisms.  AirBNB should make sure people are as protected with their service as they would be in any accommodation.

Worker (Mis)Categorization:  This is totally underhanded and makes me crazy.  If this isn’t a step back for a healthy society I don’t know what is.  People need stability to perform well in their job.  This is a shortsighted way to make higher profits.  Reading about this makes me feeling like the sharing economy is the latest way to feel good being poor and be without legal rights and health care.

New Opportunities:  Many of these companies do offer new relatively simple ways to facilitate experiences that may not have felt accessible before.  Kickstarter has absolutely allowed for a number of creative projects - some of which might previously never have been made due to lack of funds and connections - to get off the ground. The hard part of this model is its appropriation by larger companies in attempts to launch their own commercial products.  It reminds us how quickly large companies consume smaller successful business models.  It also points out how lucrative these new sharing economies actually are.

AirBNB offers people new opportunities to make some money.  It also offers people an opportunity to stay in a location for more than a few days at more reasonable price   Because of AirBNB I’m able to rent my place in SF and afford to be in NY and attend SFPC.  If not for that fact, I would be borrowing money from some bank and then paying interest.  For me, parts of the sharing economy are wonderful and empowering.

The Pain of the New:  I understand how hotels and taxi industries would be scared by these new tools.  Phone apps have allowed for the latest disruption to what had previously been a long-time static and reliable economic model.  Some individual privileged positions would point out: this is capitalism, evolve or die.  Sadly, many people work long hard hours with little time to ask whether they are participating in the “best, most-efficient system” or whether they should be preparing for a sudden career change.  I see the losers in the new economy not as the industries, but as the employees who are probably not hired by the industries that replace their own.  


Decentralization and its Discontents

(Loosely connect thoughts after reading : Protocol by Alexander R. Galloway)

What about manufacturing moving toward a decentralized model?

Being a industrial arts teacher keeps me in tune with all the developments around building and manufacturing.  There’s lots of talk about how CNC machines, 3D-printing, low cost robotic assembly is and will provide a more decentralized design and manufacturing environment.  The model, as it’s presented, is one where you design your own domestic desires and then seek local manufactured to quickly produce a “one-of-a-kind” customized item.  This is the antithesis of the models of oversees mass production that we’ve been forced to accept over the past 50+ years.  The current model relies on deciding what people want or need to produce it in huge quantities, utilizing mass automation and cheap labor to make cheap standardized goods that optimize economies of scale.  Optimists say that we will soon be able to make massive customizations to everything we buy.  The process will involve sending our ideas via the internet to a local manufacturer who will produce these items and deliver them right back to your door.  While still based on a consumer model, the level of control provided to each individual is in line with many of the values listed under the “Emancipatory use of Media” (below, form Galloway’s writing) and is far more environmentally friendly as there tends to be less waste in some of these these systems (at least in the consumption of energy).  Companies like Shapeways, Ponoko, OSHPark and Thingaverse are already offering huge varieties of services that put design and manufacturing in the hands of anyone with a basic understanding of 3D modeling and some $$.  This is not unlike the idea proposed in the reading of a radio that allows everyone to also be have their own transmitter.  The question becomes: What tools need to be in place so that people are happy with their radio station (or creation)?  If we are all transmitting, who’s listening?  Does it matter?  Do people need to be versed in design to be satisfied with their own needs?  Will they be happy with these items over the long run or will they be more items that move to a landfill?

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What are the pitfalls/benefits of horizontal political organizing?


The majority of people who are not deeply entrenched in the machine of political power (and maybe some of those that are) have felt discontent and hopelessness toward changing a system that does not benefit their vision and daily needs.  The voice of a politician is almost always monolithic speaking to a huge range of people, with very different experiences pursuing very different goals, in hopes of convincing them to support or follow a common vehicle of power.  The requirement for a broad generalized approach on most issues to succeed at all in politics or any sort of large scale electoral  leadership is and has been a major source of discontent for the entirety of documented history.  The idea of horizontal organizing at least offers the idea that more different kinds of ideas have a voice and more people would theoretically have the opportunity to find a way to organize around issues they truly care about.  This seems highly desirable and the goal of many “grassroots” organizations.  Moving toward a more horizontal system does make sense.


Issues arise in the subtle rejections of new systems especially by those that do not have any interest in changing current systems but also in the deep rooted psychological habits of individuals.  Many people, for example, do not see themselves as free agents with a desire to participate in a non-hierarchical structure.  They may not believe it is the best system for their needs, they may feel uncomfortable with this type of system, and in some cases people may even be morally opposed to it.  As mentioned in the Galloway article “Humans seek continuity.”  Even in a horizontal structure humans will seek continuity.  Galloway points out that the internet is an example of the emergence of continuity in a system that would seem to lean away from it.  One could argue that humans cannot know enough about all the aspects of society in order to make all the important decisions in all aspects of it.  We have our daily sphere that compels us to pay attention to what it is we find most urgent.  I have trouble, for example, trusting that unqualified individuals would decide that it’s time to organize around repairing a hidden urban system, like a sewer line, without that system being exposed or failing.  If horizontal political organizing is about removing the power of specialized leadership, I can see a number of chaotic situations arising.  


Some of the biggest barriers to a horizontal experience with Technology:


  • The planned obsolescence model / the high cost of getting and staying involved in the latest developments.


  • The increasingly closed system applied to much of the most popular software and hardware (it has become increasingly difficult to repair one’s own computer for example).


  • The control over the basic architecture of the computer processor by just a few companies.


  • The reliance on electricity and mechanical devices / antiquated and centrally controlled infrastructure


  • The digital divide = locally, nationally, internationally


  • The dependence on monetary exchange to facilitate long term and/or specilzed projects


  • Methods for human interface with the hardware (keyboard, mouse, screen)


  • Technology fetisization


  • Lack of (good) training

What was the Vision? - Resonate themes

Reactions to:

  • Mindstorms by Seymour Papert "In the chapters that follow I shall try to give you some idea of these possibilities, many of which are dependent on a computer-rich future, a future where a computer will be a significant part of every child's life. But I want my readers to be very clear that what is "utopian" in my vision and in this book is a particular way of using computers, of forging new relationships between computers and people -- that the computer will be there to be used is simply a conservative premise"
  • Alan Kay - "Face to Face: Alan Kay Still Waiting for the Revolution"
  • Steve Jobs - "Bicycles for the mind"

Resonate themes:

Computers can, are and will change the way people learn and visualize information:

For the most part I agree with the authors / speakers on this statement.  I know that I had a hard time understanding a number of math and science concepts in what would be considered a traditional educational institution.  I’m definitely a visual learner, but there were so few tools that allowed for visual learning especially in math and science.  There were hardly any computers at all until middle school and those were for learning typing.  Some concepts in both math and science (especially physics) did not become digestible for me until fairly recently through the use of digital tools and visualizations.  I can easily understand how children and teens that are inclined to understand complex information visually would feel that certain types of information are much easier to access through visual tools and computational (interactive) models.  Animations and Interactive models seem particularly relevant to learning various math and science concepts.  At the school I teach out now, I’m seeing more and more tools being tested and used with regularity.  However, computers are just one of many tools and should not replace such activities as model making, physical interactions and hands on demos.  For example, while cleaner and perhaps more humane, I’m sceptical about simulations involving concepts that require precise motor skills.  Things like dissection and circuit building can be simulated but may do not teach some of the important aspects of these activities like steady coordination and fine motor skills.  I’ve seen students that are amazing at programming but struggle to lay out the most basic circuits.

I do agree with Papert’s assertion that a visual digital environment facilitates fixing mistakes instead of shying away from them, but I’m also sure that computers are not the only place that such persistence takes place.  Hands on building, for example, is another place where mistakes are not a stopping point but a chance to backup and redesign.  The tangibility of the final object motivates in a way that an abstract problem may not.  On the other hand getting students to think about the subdivision or problems, and symbols as information representation are perhaps easier with digital tools than any other.

What’s most important is that the students are truly engaged by the tools and that the learning is obvious and/or measurable.  Computers do seem to be facilitating this more than ever for both students and adults.  


Teachers and Schools are the Problem:

I agree with this statement but, as a teacher, I am sympathetic to the pressures on teachers from the institution and the school community.  Most teachers want nothing more than to engage their students in a the most meaningful way possible.  As they enter the profession you’ll generally see that teachers are tech-savy and have a full range of tools with which to engage their students in deep, meaningful learning.  The problem I see is that, schools are often underfunded which often puts too many students in front of too few resources keeping teachers stretched extremely thin.  Even if an institution may offer professional development opportunities, the teacher may not have the time and energy to pursue them (and certainly not with regularity).  Without regular training and support teachers and administrator quickly fall behind in the latest tools and pedagogical methods.  The tools change so quickly that with so many responsibilities,  teachers often cannot keep up.  On top of this, tools are often created without a deep understanding of the day-to-day classroom experience (which can vary widely from school to school).  The tools are not always presented in an accessible way or with sufficient training.  This is combination with the fact that teachers also just aren’t paid very well, can lead to some of the best teachers moving to other careers.

I do believe that a teacher that is too set in her/his way can be a strong barrier to information and creative thinking.  I watched a computer science program get phased out at my school and then three years later get phased back in.  While not stated as so, the reasoning had to do with the way the teacher approached the subject.  The teaching was dry and did not excite students about the medium.  The new program and teacher, a recent Media Lab graduate, is completely different: far more project based, using new tools like Processing to explain the concepts.  A revolution in education is coming but it’s coming slowly and and clunkily.  The revolution will be driven by technology but more importantly by the nimble ways of thinking and learning facilitated by technology.